Medieval Icelanders saw the whales who lived in the Scandinavian Arctic as potentially magical and dangerous, associated with and controlled by evil beings or malignant forces. This stereotype was reinforced as Christianity took root in the region.
Among these dangerous creatures, often grouped under the name illhveli (which translates as wicked or evil whales) was the Skeljúngur, meaning Shell Whale.
The documentary record of Scandinavian whale uses begins long before the first saga (i.e., record of Heroic deeds) was written, and even before laws were recorded. Thanks to this record of whale uses we now know that there was a fundamental difference between the Skeljúngur and all the other illhveli: the skeljúngur was safe to eat. It was even tasty, as the meat resembled thta of a land creature, more meat than fish. Therefore, the Skeljúngur was is considered the most dangerous of the edible whales cruising the Scandinavian Arctic and the Northern Seas.
Moreover, while catalogued as wicked, ancient documents recorded instances when the Skeljúngur helped humans, protecting them from other sea creatures. Notably, a young skeljúngur aided Hjalmper and Olvir in their battle against a vicious horsshvalur (i.g., Horse Whale).
In size, and adult Skeljúngur varies between 20 to 45 m long. Records are not unified whether it has teeth or baleen, but all witness accounts agreed it's very fat, with a rounded body, but its flippers are short and funny looking. It also lacks dorsal fins, and its entire body is covered with shells that rattle as it swims. In deep coastal waters, it will rub its head against rocks and the bottom to remove some of the oldest shells, getting some relief from their weight and the itch they produce.
However, despite its portly appearance, this beast is a fast swimmer, diving vertically to reach the bottom quickly, and at times sleeping with its head sticking out of the sea while its tail points to the bottom.
A shell-whale will stop in the path of an oncoming ship, obstruct the vessel’s course if the captain tries to avoid it. Skilled sailors should change their course fast enough to evade it, as sailing right onto it causes the whale to throw the ship and kill all on board. When destroying boats, it likes to strike them with its fins and tails.
It is said that, on occasion, guided by a far away master, most often a evil wizard, the skeljúngur would force fish into dangerous regions. Fishermen would follow the fish to become prisoners in service of the wizard.
The Skeljúngur's armor makes them impervious to most attacks, hence they are quite fearless, playing dead to entice prey within range.
Witness recounted that off the coast of Grimsey, a skeljúngur was brought on board of the whaling ship Minerva after being harpooned and believed dead. The seemingly dead whale, however, came back to life fully recovered, thrashing to left and right to be free until the whole of the boat was turned to nothing.
Skeljúngurs hate the sound of iron being ground and filed, it reminds them of harpoons and pain. If one of these whales hears that loathed sound, it will go frantic and beach itself to get away from it. Its secondary name of Svarfhvalur (Iron Whale), is derived from this aversion.
-Jón Baldur Hlíðberg, Sigurður Ægisson. 2008. Meeting with Monsters: An Illustrated Guide to the Beasts of Iceland. JPV.
-Szabo, V.E., 2008. Chapter Six. From Krakens To Fish Drivers: Monstrous Fishes In North Atlantic History And Literature. In Monstrous Fishes and the Mead-Dark Sea (pp. 177-210). BRILL.
-Einarsson, N., 1996. A sea of images: fishers, whalers and environmentalists. Images of contemporary Iceland: everyday lives and global contexts, pp.46-59.